RACINE — In spite of facing a $5 million deficit, the city has decreased its tax levy and tax rate for 2020 with no elimination to city services, layoffs or furloughs, according to Mayor Cory Mason.
A large portion of that deficit was reduced by moving the fees for maintaining fire hydrants onto water bills and by making changes to city employees’ health benefits, both of which were controversial.
Mason, in his budget address Monday, emphasized that changes need to be made at the state and federal level or else the city’s financial struggles will continue. State and federal aid has decreased while the city’s ability to raise its levy is contingent upon new construction.
“At a certain point we’ve managed to get through this year with a lot of hard work, but if the Legislature doesn’t give the City of Racine and other cities more flexibility on their financing, I don’t know how we’ll proceed without major changes coming in the future,” Mason told The Journal Times. “This year was a hard budget. Next year will be harder.”
The property tax levy in the proposed 2020 budget is reduced by $500,000 from $54.3 million to $53.8 million.
The property tax mill rate for 2020 is proposed to drop from 16.09 to 14.92 per $1,000 in property value, the city’s largest drop in the property tax mill rate in more than a decade.
However, property valuations increased by approximately 8%, about the same as the mill rate is proposed to decrease, meaning property owners will not necessarily see a decrease in their tax bills.
In addition, residents will see an increase of about $17 per quarter on their water bills because of the hydrant fee changes made earlier this year.
“There’s a real tension between the government services we need to provide and the awareness that our property tax rate is substantially higher than our neighbors,’ “ Mason told The Journal Times.
The biggest announcement of the budget was the Rental Empowerment and Neighborhood Tenant Services initiative, a package of housing reforms that according to a city press release is “aimed at protecting both renters and good landlords, while sending a clear message or absentee property owners that the City will no longer tolerate them letting their properties deteriorate, blighting our neighborhoods and impacting all residents’ quality of life.”
The proposed changes includes:
- A landlord registry to ensure the city has the current property owner’s name and contact information for every rental property in the city.
- A searchable public database of all city properties so anyone can search a property’s history, including any code violations and whether the violations were addressed.
- Requiring banks to register, inspect and maintain all properties pending foreclosures.
- Housing and environmental inspections in targeted neighborhoods.
- Updating chronic nuisance codes to include code violations. Currently nuisance ordinances focus on public safety issues.
- Establishing an escrow account for when landlords need to make repairs to bring their property up to code. Tenants would pay their rent into the account and the landlord would receive those funds once the repairs are complete.
- Stronger reinforcement of ordinances barring retaliation against tenants for reporting code violations.
Many of the proposed changes stemmed from a renters’ roundtable the city held in August as well as roundtables with landlords held in conjunction with Southeastern Wisconsin Landlords Association.
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“Let me be clear: We have many excellent landlords in our city, and we need more of them,” Mason stated in his address. “But too many neighborhoods are being blighted by absentee property owners, and too many tenants are paying good money to live in bad housing. Our city employees, in multiple departments, are spending considerable time trying to enforce repeat code violations against problem property owners.”
The budget also proposes changing the Redevelopment Authority of Racine to a Community Development Authority, which still has the same authority to redevelop blighted industrial and commercial sites but also gives the authority the ability to address, “blight elimination, slum clearance, urban renewal programs and projects and housing projects.”
The city also plans to continue investing in the land banking program, which is run in partnership with the county.
The city also announced that for its Smart Cities initiative, it plans to collaborate with U.S. Cellular to install high-speed internet across the city and make Racine the first 5G-enabled city in Wisconsin.
Other proposed changes include:
- Creating a human resources generalist for the city’s Human Resources Department, as recommended in a recent study of the city’s police department.
- Moving part-time city worker wages from $10 to $11.25 an hour. Mason set a goal of raising minimum wage for part-time workers to $15 an hour by the end of his first term as mayor. To fund that, the city is cutting funding for interns in the mayor’s office.
- Adding three seasonal employees to the Department of Public Works to help address bulky waste.
- Joining the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which will provide implicit bias training for city employees.
- Equipping every member of the Racine Police Department with a body-worn camera for their exclusive use.
- Allocating more resources for the 2020 presidential election, which includes more satellite locations and expanded voting hours. The city will also begin to move to all electronic poll books, which is expected to increase efficiency and reduce staff time.
“Our city’s residents will be able to vote at our community centers on weekend, they’ll be able to vote at our library and at City Hall and we are even shifting some polling locations to be on transit routes,” Mason stated. “The right to vote is sacred and the budget before you protects and enhances this fundamental right.”
In 2019, as part of the city’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accords, the city conducted an audit of the city’s energy use. Its preliminary findings found the city’s buildings and vehicles contributed 29,600 tons of carbon dioxide, or 161 railcars’ worth of coal, into the atmosphere annually.
The budget includes plans to buy and deploy at least three new electronic vehicles, in addition to the six electric buses that are set to be purchased this year with the VW settlement money.
For 2020, Sustainability and Conservation Coordinator Cara Pratt will begin implementation of a energy independence plan based on said audit, which includes a collaboration with We Energies through their SolarNow program to create solar panel arrays within the city limits, which could also be a potential source of revenue.
The 2020 budget continues the city’s commitment to programs run in partnership designed to help residents move up the economic ladder, from receiving a high school equivalent diploma to job training to access to affordable health care and financial counseling, particularly for people of color.
“For too many Racine residents, their access to health care, education, housing, wealth and opportunity are limited by their race or their ethnicity,” Mason stated. “These are regional challenges and require regional solutions but at the heart of my administration is our focus on addressing and overcoming these inequities.”
Next week the Committee of the Whole is scheduled to hold budget discussion at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Room 205.
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